A rare occurrence is underway when I get to London – there’s some sort of bright, yellow ball of heat burning in the sky. Naturally the city’s commuters are prepared for the unpredictability of the British summer as some sport sunglasses, while others still don coats. And on my arrival to meet Jamal Edwards, founder of urban music channel SBTV, at his PR agent’s office, my first thought was that he too was still wearing sunglasses even though I’d just walked into the boardroom – but I was wrong.
It turns out Edwards was actually adjusting a Celestial Black Diamond Eye Mask to brighten up his peepers after getting little sleep the night before, so I quiz him on how much kip he’s actually had. “None,” says Edwards. The shock on my face was apparently obvious, so he quickly follows up. “Nah, I’m joking,” he laughs. “What, do I look like I [haven’t slept]?” He actually looks fresh but the bottle of orange Lucozade keeping him company alongside a packet of Haribo Starmix indicates a sugar rush is brewing. “I have a bad sweet-tooth,” he admits. “Honestly I’ve had four hours’ sleep – I wanted eight but [it doesn’t always work].”
He quickly grabs one of his two phones sitting on the table and uploads a selfie to his Instagram Story with the mask on, giving a shout out to the company behind it. He laughs at himself shortly after when the firm quickly reposts the snap on its own Story. It’s obvious he’s well connected but I’m intrigued by the mobile duo he flits between. “Basically one is business, one is family,” he explains. “So if I turn my business [phone] off, my parents [can still] get through to me.”
A third phone also materialises as if by magic, which he can’t really define the purpose of as it’s not even connected, he tells me. But as his entire career has revolved around the production of content, it’s clear how much his devices mean to him and that’s unsurprising given the contacts saved on them. Just days before we speak, he was in Cannes rubbing shoulders with the likes of actress Gabrielle Union and her former NBA player husband Dwayne Wade. He later uploads a picture with them to his Instagram page. Of course, nobody should be taken aback over the fact Edwards is so immersed in social media as that’s how he got to where he is today – by embracing YouTube before it was a household brand.
This is actually the third time I’ve been able to interview Edwards but the first time we’re able to dive deep and take things from the top. So taking it back to his childhood, was he always determined to become a multimedia entrepreneur with ties to A-list performers? Well actually, it seems as though he wanted to try out every job but the one he has. “The first thing I wanted to be was a shopkeeper,” Edwards says. “Just for the fact I liked to play with money. I remember back in the day I set up my bunk bed as a shop and used to sell stuff to my sister.”
He was around seven then and once the retail phase wore off, he envisioned a future in transport. “I wanted to be a bus driver [or] taxi driver,” Edwards reveals, with his inspiration driven by the classic Sega video and arcade game Crazy Taxi. “I used to have so much fun playing that game,” he says excitedly.
Like all parents, his mother Brenda had an idea of where she would like his career to head. “There was like a period of time where I wanted to do acting,” says Edwards. “I think that was mainly because of my mum – she’s into drama, singing, all of that stuff.” His mum was actually previously a contender on The X Factor and can be found on daytime TV these days, which gives you an idea of just how into that stuff she is. “Then it was football [I fancied] and then I wanted to be an MC, then I was really into animals and wildlife like Steve Irwin – I was a big fan of him.”
Edwards had thought through and played out many different passions by the time he reached his mid-teens. But when he received a videocamera at the age of 15 from his parents, a couple of ideas stuck. “I started filming animals in my back garden,” recalls Edwards. “I didn’t know what to do, I just started filming everything – like foxes, ants, just weird stuff in my garden.” Deciding to leave Irwin to it, he reverted back to his other love –MCing. “I realised the frustration of my friends trying to break into the music industry and I was like ‘Alright, cool – I’m gonna create a platform for them’ and then that’s when I started SBTV.” In case you’re wondering, the SB in SBTV stands for Smokey Barz – Edwards’ rap name.
With an ambition of helping his friends achieve their dreams, Edwards would take his camera out and start filming his mates as they spat lyrics. Recognising he needed somewhere to get the footage viewed, after considering the likes of Vimeo and Dailymotion, YouTube won his attention. Of course, back then, YouTube was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is now, having launched in 2005 – just a couple of years before SBTV. The benefit was that Edwards became an early adopter and successfully grew his business alongside the video platform itself. “Then, YouTube was the easiest, most accessible platform I thought I could use,” Edwards says. “I just started uploading onto there and then started being more consistent with it.”
Given social media networks were still on the rise, Edwards relied on word of mouth quite heavily to get eyeballs on SBTV. “I used to just have a group of friends that promoted the videos,” he notes, while his status at school was also helpful. “I was quite popular at school so I was able to tell people go [and have a] watch. And I think because it was just so early and new, people were intrigued by it and said ‘Oh what is this?’ and then that’s what sort of helped me get to the next level.”
Of course, in a situation many entrepreneurs find themselves in, Edwards was met with some confusion around what he wanted to accomplish. “Some [people] were like ‘Woah, what [are] you doing? I don’t understand it?’ Then some were like ‘Yeah, sweet,’” he remembers. “The bigger acts are the ones that [took] more persuading.” In terms of the bigger acts, he highlights working with grime DJ Logan Sama, who became one of Edwards’ earliest collaborators after some initial persistence. The video maker was around 17 by this stage and had bagged the gig of joining Sama to record various shows. “I remember the first video I filmed on his show [featured] Skepta,” says Edwards. “And I’m like ‘Oh my god, Skepta.’ It’s mad [nowadays], I spoke to Skepta a couple of days ago.” With access to artists he aspired to have on SBTV within his reach, Edwards was determined to keep his cool and learnt the importance of professionalism throughout the process and resisted the urge to start asking for phone numbers on the spot.
That’s not all he learnt – Edwards discovered the importance of working hard too. Alongside the late nights capturing grime MCs dropping bars on camera for SBTV, his side hustle was made that much more hectic as it was managed alongside studying media at college and working part-time at Topman. Although he only started working at the men’s retailer for two weeks’ work experience, he ended up staying put for four years to earn a sustainable income while growing the business. “When my YouTube cheques started to match my Topman cheques, that’s when I was able to be like ‘Alright cool, if I put more work into YouTube, I’ll get paid more on YouTube than Topman’,” he details. “And that’s when I realised I could stop working at Topman and do SBTV [full-time].”
The graft was clearly paying off. Edwards’ efforts with SBTV rocketed to an entirely new level altogether in 2011 after he was contacted by creative agency BBH. The outreach resulted in him being featured in a Google Chrome TV advert that ran at prime time. For context, the US equivalent featured Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. “Certain things in the mainstream [were] solidifying my name a little bit, so I was like ‘Oh shit’ – I had a nationwide advert which was on,” he remembers, evidently still excited by the achievement even now. “[BBH said] ‘We think your story resonates with the UK audience, would you be up for getting involved?’ I sort of helped craft the advert, put pieces together and from there it happened.”
Edwards was quickly becoming a big name in his own right but it was his own ability to discover talent and determine who was the next big thing that got him into such a position. Referring to how his collaboration with Jessie J early on came about, he says: “I was in Brick Lane and she was performing, then I just bonded with her from there.” Soon after that meet, SBTV became the first YouTube channel she was featured on outside of her own. The friendship remains intact years down the line too, with the pair recently joining forces for Channel 4’s Celebrity Gogglebox. Edwards is also often linked to one rather well-known flame-haired warbler with a penchant for playing guitar. “I [connected with] Ed [Sheeran] through Twitter,” he says casually. “And then Rita [Ora], Emilie [Sandé] were through mutual friends and just me always trying to make sure I’m on it early.”
The difficulty Edwards has faced as his profile has grown, like many others in the spotlight, is working out who’s a friend and who’s a fake. “One of the biggest things [to deal with] is knowing who’s actually there for you,” he opines. “In a mixture of doing all the business stuff, it’s like [which] people are actually genuine? I think that’s one of the biggest things because everyone wants a piece of your pie, so it’s just trying to figure out who’s there to actually help you and who isn’t. That’s quite a big thing to overcome, definitely.”
Beyond that, another matter he’s opened up about previously is experiencing anxiety. Interestingly enough, it came about the time he was becoming a star in his own right. “When the Google Chrome advert came out, it was like ‘Woah, [this is] prime time ITV’ and it was just on TV for [about] a month nonstop,” says Edwards. “That’s when I first stepped outside and people I didn’t know were asking for pictures and I [thought] ‘Why?’. I was just so confused and that’s when I got anxious. I’ve learnt how to deal with that now and other people come up to me and I’m just like ‘Yeah, sweet, boom’. But the first time [with] people I don’t know, it was just weird.”
As Edwards puts it, he created SBTV to be behind the camera and put artists online for them to grow, rather than to become a celebrity himself. He has a simple formula in place to compose himself when he feels any sort of anxiety or nerves kicking in now though. “[For example], when I was doing a talk yesterday I [was] getting butterflies in my stomach and sometimes I start sweating and whatever but I just try and take a deep breath,” he explains. “I used to be very bad at my breathing and then it just used to make me panic a lot.” The other thing he likes to do is disconnect at the end of a long day. “Just slow down, turn my phones off and chill,” he adds.Having been so open about his own struggles, Edwards went onto film some documentaries about mental health and also collaborated with charity CALM to spread awareness and support. This has allowed him to become something of a “sound board” as people have become accustomed to messaging him from time to time. “I think the biggest thing is listening, not even talking – just having someone sound whatever it is that’s going on in life,” he says. “I’ve learnt that as I’ve grown up – just to listen. I think that’s the the biggest thing about mental health, opening it up to a different audience for people to say something on their mind and I’m not gonna judge them.”
The connections Edwards has notched up over more than a decade are countless. But there’s perhaps none more renowned than her royal majesty, the Queen, who he received an MBE from in 2014. “Yeah, it was sick,” he says of the experience, “it was a moment.” There was one downside to the day though. “I got a picture [of] me and Joan Collins and I can’t find it. I’ve been looking for it everywhere – that picture [would] bang on Instagram [but] I lost it, I’m so gutted. When I see Joan Collins next time I’m gonna tell her I lost the picture and we need another.”
Reflecting on other standout moments that have come about, he highlights going on the 777 Tour with Rihanna as well as being recognised in the Forbes 30 Under 30 campaign and receiving an honorary MBA from the University of Bedfordshire – a place he has ties to, having been born in Luton. “I think one of the biggest things is being able to travel as well,” Edwards offers. He points to Beijing, LA, Singapore and Mexico as places he’s enjoyed and says St Vincent, where his family is from, is on his hit list. “I want to connect to my roots,” he adds. “I just got back from Berlin and Cannes and I think I could be rich in money or rich in awards or whatever – but actually rich in life is to travel and explore the world. Some of my friends have never even jumped on a plane before and part of me is like ‘I wanna be able to get them on a flight.’”
It’s not just his personal circle that Edwards wants to help though. He’s as philanthropic as he is entrepreneurial. That much is clear from the way he splits his time, with 50% on SBTV, which now has 1.1 million subscribers and over 706,500,000 views, 25% on personal things and 25% for side projects. One such campaign he’s been working on recently is with Job Today, as the hiring app revealed that Brits are moving away from the traditional “job for life” to a role that meets their needs, with many also possessing side hustles. As such, Edwards was drafted in to inspire youngsters and act as a mentor. “They sent over the campaign and it was pretty interesting being able to mentor someone,” he says. “I’ve always believed in giving back. There’ve been amazing entries. I’ve asked to get all [of them] because they’re just proper sick [and] people went through [the] effort to enter. I was really impressed.”
And on the theme of giving back and mentoring, another venture of his is the Jamal Edwards Delve youth project. It’s based in the Acton and Ealing area of London where he grew up and kicked off in June this year after 18 months of work. “I came back to my area and wanted to try help people get into jobs or out of the life they’re living, which isn’t necessarily a positive one,” Edwards explains. It was a family friend who planted the seed for him to use his passion and experience for giving back in this format, so the SBTV boss got to work.
With partial funding from Wellcome Trust and YouTube Music, Edwards was able to reopen a youth centre on the estate where he once lived and three additional sites. “[I wanted to] give the young people something to do [and] try to inspire them,” he says. “Workshops and youth clubs were a massive part of my childhood. Not even school helped inspire filming [for me], it was a film workshop at the youth centre [where] I was able to create a film and that allowed me to do what I’m doing today. It’s just a shame that all the youth centres [are] now getting shut down.”
Hearing everything from table tennis and football to music and media to mechanics and nail art are desired by youngsters, even if Edwards doesn’t offer a particular passion initially, he’ll “use my contacts to connect the dots.” And detailing this is a long-term project that’s going to take up an increasing amount of time over the next five years at least, his enthusiasm for Delve is palpable. “I buzz off this community stuff, I like doing it,” Edwards raves. “I’m a man of the people.”
He notes that while the youth centres are starting in London areas close to his heart, he plans to expand Delve considerably. “I wanna go to different boroughs, I wanna go up and down the country and then I wanna [go] outside the country and do other places in the world and run Delve into the other areas and help wherever it’s needed – it might be in the Bronx and New York or LA or Mexico,” he says. “I just wanna go to these areas and help.”
This interview was set up with Jamal via the JOB TODAY #WorksForMe campaign – https://jobtoday.com/gb